The Islamic State in Libya, between a Jihadi movement and a Caliphate

The Islamic State in Libya, between a Jihadi movement and a Caliphate
The Islamic State in Libya has drawn more and more attention to itself over the last few weeks and months. First in January when it executed two Tunisian journalists in Libya, then the Coptic massacre of 21 Egyptians in late February and then most recently at the Tunisian museum attack in Bardo where the perpetrators of the attack allegedly were trained in Libya.

Libya is a rare case for ISIS, very much different from its model in Iraq and Syria – in Libya ISIS has found itself to be the first Jihadi organization that starts from practically having no territory and then having to build itself and expand its territory – all this, not by running an AQ styled long term movement nor by means of simple Da’wah (preaching) activities to win the hearts of the people, but under the image of being an actual Islamic State.

So the question is, how has IS tried to deal with this and how has it tried to implement its strategy in Libya with the restricted authority it has?

ISIS is not capable of using as risky behaviour as it has in Syria or Iraq, the group has very little authority in the land and it faces much stronger fighting groups in the region that challenge it. As it sometimes becomes clear that ISIS acts very irrational and does things that are strategically illogical in order to maintain its image – although what can be seen in Libya is actually quite exceptional from the group. ISIS has been very cautious in making enemies, of course they are not BFF’s with all factions in Libya but in comparison to Syria they maintain a fairly strategic relationship with other factions.

If we take the example of the Shura Council in Benghazi, ISIS probably has the best of relations with this council more than any other faction in Libya, whether Islamists or Jihadis.
ISIS fights alongside the Shura Council in Benghazi against Haftar allied forces and in fact maintains a good relationship with the leaders of the council such as Wisam Ben Hamid and Shaykh Jalal Makhzoum. In fact just recently, ISIS affiliated social media accounts were paying commemorative tributes to the fallen Shura Council commander and Emir of the Shuhada Al-Bareqah Brigade, Buka Al-Araibi.

On the other hand ISIS is having a lot of beef with other factions such as the Shura Council of Derna and the Dawn Militia. The first clashes were seen this month, March 2015 where Dawn Militia allied brigades mainly from Misurata clashed with ISIS in Sirte outskirts and Nawfaliyah. ISIS already had called Dawn Militia apostates and released several unofficial statements branding them as deviant and misguided fighters, but Misurata fighters did not attack the Islamic State in Sirte, region after ISIS took over both Sirte city and Nawfaliyah, out of fear that it would case harm upon the civilians, as ISIS are known for destructive military techniques – but now the groups are still fighting, although the clashes are not as intensive as how they began.


Brigade 166 (Operation Sunrise, Dawn Militia allied forces) on frontlines against ISIS in Sirte, Libya
This mixed approach towards other groups is all in bid to try and show the effectiveness of its authority, to paint the situation similar to that of Syria where there are only two sides, those with ISIS and those against it. It was not long ago that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi said in an audio statement that “the organizations in Libya are nullified”, meaning that only the “Caliphate” and its authority is legitimate and all other groups should give pledge of allegiance. Its tarnishing the image of ISIS that the command of their leader is having little to no effect on the ground as no organization in Libya except elements of Ansar Al-Sharia have given pledge of allegiance.

Balancing between governance and militant activity
The limited power and authority ISIS has limits the group in their struggle to show themselves as a powerful Caliphate that “governs the affairs of the Ummah[1]” – and what is clear is that wherever ISIS has this sort of restriction it tries to compensate by doing deadly attacks that spill lots of blood. The Tripoli attack on Corinthians Hotel testifies to this tactic, so does the Al-Qubbah suicide bombings that left 47 Libyans killed. ISIS did not win over many of its followers by being a mainstream Jihadi organization that replicates Al-Qaeda – rather it stands out because it portrays itself as being an actual state, beyond a militia or Jihadi organization – so for it to keep its followers intact it must maintain this image.

The announcements of expanding into Libya and Egypt or Nigeria for that sake were very risky for ISIS when it comes to its support-base. These expansions put ISIS in a position where now it has to cater to its image and protect its reputation in more than two countries – of course it also has given ISIS advantages because it creates that sense of euphoria in the minds of its supporters – and feeds them this idea that the Caliphate is actually expanding to another continent.


Territorial Map of Derna, Libya
On the other hand ISIS has capitalized of its stronghold Derna where it releases pictures and videos very often – many of them resemble those that we see from Syria and Iraq, for instance burnings of cigarettes or musical instruments. These events are vital for ISIS because for this group governance is key and it thrives off showing these images to once again, keep away any talks of the group simply being a Jihadi movement.

[1] Islamic Nation

Follow me on twitter: @MaghrebiNote


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